Controlling Children’s Media Access Part Three: What is the Real Learning Happening?

This article was first published in the Jan/Feb 2013 edition of Home Education Magazine

In my first two articles (part 1 and part 2) on controlling children’s access to media I chronicled my learning journey as I challenged what I thought I knew about children and the impact of media. I also looked at how my control of the children in my life directly contradicted my goals as a social justice educator and advocate.

In this article I want to address how my view of what children learn from video games has evolved.

When I became a mom, I read numerous articles about the negative impact of television and video game violence on children.

Controversy surrounding violent video games was often in the media around the time the first child in my life was born. I vividly remember the articles I read at the time about the role violent video games played in children and teens.

As parents, we’ve read what the mainstream media has to say about violent video games and the resulting violent behavior that may be produced in children. We’ve read that watching violence desensitizes children. We’ve read about the negative impact of excessive media consumption on learning and development.

When I read those articles, they reinforced the beliefs I already had.

In fact, I looked for those kinds of articles to justify my control of the first child in my life.

I would read one and say to myself, “See…that’s why it’s important to limit television.”

I also spent lots of time on forums that advocate parental control over children’s media access. I found many like-minded individuals and groups who would support my stance of control.

Even though I felt I was very media savvy, I chose not to question what I read because the articles confirmed what I thought I knew about media and children. They helped me to feel comfortable with the decisions I was making, even though deep down I may have been uncertain.

Ironically, this kind of blind acceptance of what I read is exactly the opposite of what I would want for the children in my life. I want them to be critical thinkers and question what they see and hear. And yet, I did not do the same when it came to children and media.

When I began to read actual research articles in the process of writing my book, a much more nuanced picture emerged than that portrayed in mainstream media.

For example, there are some well-publicized studies that have appeared to demonstrate a correlation between violent video games and violent acts in children, leading many parents to regard video games with fear and as a result restrict access. I know they certainly did for me.

However, much of the research on the possible connection between game violence and actual violence has not taken into account family violence or aggressive personalities. When these factors are taken into account, studies show that violent video games and other media may actually have only a limited or no role in causing violence. (1)

Of course, that is the nature of mainstream media. With limited space to address an issue in depth and a desire for easy explanations, we rarely see a more complex picture portrayed.

When we are faced with what seems to be random tragic violence, we look for an easier explanation. We also look to distance ourselves from that violence and to protect or inoculate our families from it.

As parents, we want to believe that we can shield children from harm and violence. We also want to control what might be negative consequences from watching violence.

I strongly believed that if I could limit childrens’ access to violent media, they would be peace-loving and caring individuals. And I believed the opposite. If I didn’t restrict their access, then they would be more violent.

It was easier to control what they accessed than it was to see a complex world with no guarantees.

I was looking for 1+1=2. And the mainstream articles seemed to give me the answers I needed to quell my fear about the future for the boys in my life.

Not only is the picture more complex than violent media produces violent children, there is other research that has shown violent video games may actually play an important, positive role in the development of adolescent boys. (2)

Just as physical play allows children—often boys—to explore aggression and dominance without actual harm, video games allow them to safely explore issues of death, war and violence in a safe environment.

Boys in a cross-racial study were found to use violent video games to explore and master exciting and realistic environments. They could explore fantasies of power and glory, as well as work out feelings of stress and anger. The boys in the study could also clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality. (3)

As a mom, I had to become comfortable with the ways the children in my life expressed themselves physically and verbally.

When I was only willing to view their behavior through the lens of my fear of violence and violent behavior, I would become deeply uncomfortable with how they acted toward each other and other children.

I would assume that the other children were uncomfortable and when I would check in, everyone would say they were fine. So my frame of reference didn’t allow me to see their actions from a different perspective.

The other irony of all of this is that in my own life, I had experienced the ways aggressive and competitive games, play fighting, and violent movies allowed me to work through my stress and anger. But, I didn’t trust at that time that children could have this experience and not directly translate it to real life.

Beyond concerns about violence, there is a mainstream view of entertainment-based video games as a barrier to learning. When children and teens play video games, parents often view it as a waste of time. However, research calls this assumption into question as well.

One study looked at what it means to gain expert knowledge in any subject matter.

It identified seven common characteristics of experts in various fields, among them superior short-term and long-term memory, the ability to solve problems quickly, seeing and representing problems at a deeper level than novices, and excellent self-monitoring skills. (4)

Comparing children who were outstanding video game players to experts in other fields, the researchers found that

(t)he evidence indicated that they demonstrate many expert behaviors. (Highly skilled child players) in this study demonstrated the following behaviors at advanced levels within the scope of the game environment: actively seeks new information; incorporates new information; assesses situations using multiple pieces of data; organizes, classifies, and categorizes information; consistently applies successful behaviors; is confident about one’s own knowledge; is willing to take risks; employs corrective action when needed; can consider input from multiple sources; recognizes patterns; uses holistic thinking; is able to integrate information with behaviors; uses inductive thinking; strategizes; thinks critically; and recognizes constraints and misinformation. (5)

This study clearly indicates a greater role for video games than simply being a way to pass the time or to develop eye-hand coordination.

We may choose to see video games as a waste of time for children. We may decide to limit the number of hours children play or the types of games they play because we believe they must engage in activities that are more productive.

If we are able to shift our view and consider video games from a more neutral perspective, we might see a positive role for video games and other media in the lives of children.

If I had continued on my course of controlling access to video games, television and YouTube for the children in my life, I would have missed the amazing level of persistence demonstrated when they play video games.

I would have missed the ways video games pushed them to learn to do math and read more proficiently.

I would have missed the joy they have in creating and posting their own videos on YouTube to share with their friends and subscribers.

I would have missed the ways they negotiate their relationships with friends through multiplayer on-line games while using Skype.

By pre-determining our views, by believing that we know what is best in these situations, we miss an opportunity to understand how video games impact children beyond fears of violence and lack of educational value.

Moving away from our commonly held beliefs about the need to control children creates an opportunity to see the experiences they engage in through a different lens. If we are sure we know what the outcome will be from a particular activity, like watching television or playing video games, we miss the chance to see what is really happening in the lives of children.

[1] Christopher J. Ferguson, Stephanie Rueda, Amanda D. Cruz, Diana E. Ferguson, Stacey Fritz, “Violent Video Games and Aggression: Causal Relationship or Byproduct of Family Violence and Intrinsic Violence Motivation?” Criminal Justice and Behavior, 2008 35: 330.

[2] For further exploration on the important role that violent games can play in children’s lives, read Gerard Jones’ excellent book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence (2002).

[3] Cheryl K. Olson, Lawrence A. Kutner and Dorothy E. Warner, “The Role of Violent Video Game Content in Adolescent Development: Boys’ Perspectives,” Journal of Adolescent Research 2008 23, 69.

[4] Stephanie S. VanDeventer and James A. White, “Expert Behavior in Children’s Video Game Play,” Simulation Gaming 2002 33, 29.

[5] VanDeventer and White, 46.

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